The first piece of advice for writers is “write what you know.” Chris Thile, the hyperactive expert mandolin player and onetime radio star, seems to have taken that bit of advice and sprinted with it.
When the Los Angeles Philharmonic and seven other organizations co-commissioned Thile to write a mandolin concerto, they got something uniquely personal, daffy, uninhibited, and unclassifiable. The title of Thile’s concerto — his second — ATTENTION! A narrative song cycle for extroverted mandolinist and orchestra, gave us a pretty good idea that something crazy was going to happen at the Hollywood Bowl last Tuesday night (Aug. 22). This was the second performance of the piece and its West Coast premiere, after the world premiere at Tanglewood on June 29.
The fun house started with Thile literally leaping onto the stage as if on an extreme sugar high — which, judging from a few hearings of his four-year-long gig as Garrison Keillor’s successor on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion, is merely Thile being Thile. He played and sang Pete Seeger’s “Little Birdie” as an apparent warm-up, strumming his small eight-string instrument rapidly. Following one false start for alleged tuning purposes and then another, he mentioned the name of the late actress Carrie Fisher while his accomplice on the podium, Teddy Abrams, struck up the Star Wars theme.
Where was Thile going with all of this? It turned out these opening antics were integral components of ATTENTION! which would only become apparent by the end of the 43-or-so minute piece. In between these mileposts, sometimes singing, sometimes speaking, Thile spun a zany yet true (he says) tale of his adventures at a San Diego record industry convention in the summer of 2005.
He threw in references to Walmart, the late (except in Japan and Ireland) lamented Tower Records, and especially the role that Starbucks played in capsizing the record retailing business just as downloads and eventually smartphones were causing even more radical disruption. Eventually, he ended up at a rooftop VIP industry party where, on his knees, he met his crush in a final movement titled — yes — “Carrie Freaking Fisher” as he played “Princess Leia’s Theme” softly.
The backing score to all of this is an eclectic soup that takes in bluegrass licks, rock, folk, and classical strains, occasionally rising to cinematic climaxes. A three-hour wait in a hotel room is a spot in the storyline for an elaborate mandolin cadenza. At one point, there’s an orchestrated replica of St Germain’s 2000 hit “Rose Rouge” (minus the terrific jazzy groove), with Marlena Shaw’s sampled vocals sung by a quintet of singers. This is supposed to represent the kind of music that sold at Starbucks in the 2000s, alongside references to Alanis Morissette and Norah Jones. At another point, Thile meets Blues Traveler harmonica player John Popper — portrayed here, surreally, by LA Phil associate concertmaster Bing Wang — and they engage in an instrumental duel.
Somehow, this ramble through the days of high living in the record industry in the face of its impending collapse actually holds together — and, at the very least, is always entertaining. Thile accomplished the rather remarkable feat of striding back and forth across the big stage while rapidly (and sometimes indistinctly) rattling off the words of the piece and simultaneously playing impossibly complex licks. He also had the most empathetic podium partner imaginable in the ever-enthusiastic Abrams, who himself is a one-man eclectic circus at home in as many, if not more, musical genres as Thile. (Abrams also happens to be the music director of the Louisville Orchestra in Kentucky, the birthplace of bluegrass.)
Thile topped things off with a wildly virtuosic solo paraphrase of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” playing way outside the tune yet always landing on his feet. Attention was paid — and it paid off handsomely.
Abrams followed up The Chris Thile Show with more American music, starting with the world premiere of a brief minimalist work by Jonathan Bailey Holland, The Comfort of Asymmetry. After a pastoral opening, an electric guitar plays a simple riff, and the rest of the orchestra locks into a pleasant repetitive pattern.
To cap things off, Abrams gave Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring Suite an impassioned treatment, attacking the main theme with exceptional vigor. There were some willful surprises in tempo — an unusually slow country dance, other passages quicker than usual. But Abrams, like his role models Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein, kept the rhythms going emphatically and sharply while closing with a deep, drawn-out coda that melted into the night.
For all of Thile’s delightfully goofy mix of this and that, it was the last strains of Copland and his borrowed Shaker tune that lingered longest in the mind. ’Tis the gift to be simple, indeed.